Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica, expedition, Ross Sea

Antarctic Peninsula vs Ross Sea

The difference between the two expeditions goes much deeper than the price. Whenever people say they have been to Antarctica, my first question is: “Which part did you visit?” I gauge my opinion on whether they are true Antarctphiles by their response.

Having waited a lifetime to visit the 7th continent, I was determined that, when my time came, I would dig deep and experience as much of Antarctica as I could. That meant going to higher latitudes, and definitely inside the Antarctic Circle (66° 33′ 39″).

I achieved this on my 2013 Ross Sea Expedition, of which I have already written (see other blogs on this site). During that 32-day expedition I experienced so many wonderful things: stepping inside Scott’s Terra Nova and Discovery huts; Shackleton’s Nimrod hut; taking a helicopter into the Taylor Dry Valley; anchoring for 5 days in McMurdo Sound, spellbound by the magnificence of the Ferrar Glacier sweeping around the Transantarctic Mountains.

After I returned (a different person) I felt the ‘Antarctic tug’ that so many feel. I needed to return. Having blown most of my budget on the big trip, I looked around for any opportunity to return. As usual, I found that Oceanwide Expeditions offered the best options, and I chose Basecamp Plancius for my return.

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This trip was 12 days, and only went to the Peninsula, but I figured I had seen the best, so this trip would be a ‘top-up’ experience.

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And it was fantastic, there is no denying it. I got to go snowshoeing, kayaked around beautiful icebergs, even slept on the ice; although it was not the experience I had anticipated – no tent, but survival-mode camping in a bivvy bag. It was six days of non-stop action squeezed in between three days down and back across the Drake Passage.

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Most of the fellow expeditioners were younger, which was to be expected, given the nature of the activities. I couldn’t keep up, but even so, I was proud of my body’s capabilities thanks to months of preparation.

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I sat back, feeling a wise old Antarctican, watching the joy and amazement as people saw their first iceberg, their first penguin, whale, seal, their first ice-capped mountain from which tumbled blue glaciers. But I felt like screaming out: “This is nothing! You should see the real Antarctica”.

It was then I realised that what I have said all along is true: the Antarctic Peninsula is an adventure playground. A spectacular one, but just a playground. It is no substitute for feeling horizontal ice sting your cheeks in a 35 knot wind at minus 14 Celcius (the Peninsula temperature rarely dropped below zero), or jumping into a Zodiac in a two-metre swell with the hull of your ship, your guide, the rubber boat, all white with frost and the spray from the waves snap freezing as the winds whips it into the air.

I’m now back from my short adventure, and treasure the friendships made and the challenges I faced – and, of course, the photos of stunning scenery – but it was all over so quickly.

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So, guess what? I’m heading back to the Ross Sea in February on my favourite ship, MV Ortelius. I have decided I just can’t live without it.

To see more of my photos, visit http://shutterstock.com/g/dale_jacobsen

And if you, too, can’t live without a true Antarctic experience, there are still a few berths left: Oceanwide Expeditions Ross Sea 2017  Mention gift code “DALE10GIFT” for extra 10% discount.

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Antarctica, Discovery, Dry Valley, expedition, Ferrar Glacier, Hut Point, McMurdo Sound, Robert Falcon Scott, Ross Sea, seal

Scott discovers the Dry Valleys of McMurdo Sound

Scott Discovers the Dry Valleys

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I remember well my feeling when I stepped from the helicopter into the Taylor Dry Valley. The immensity, the lack of ice, the absolute quiet … as I spent the next few hours wandering, looking for fossils, I decided this was one of my favourite places on earth.

Wind the clock forward three years, and I am currently re-reading RF Scott’s own account of his Discovery expedition to the Ross Sea (1901-4). Having been in the hut at Hut Point, and anchored off the Ferrar Glacier myself, this time round it is much easier to picture the place Scott so eloquently describes.

Last night, I came to the passage where Scott describes finding the Dry Valleys. What a joy! Particularly poignant is his coming across a seal skeleton, just as I had. Below is an extract from his story:

Quite suddenly these moraines ceased, and we stepped out on to a long stretch of undulating sand traversed by numerous small streams, which here and there opened out into small, shallow lakes quite free from ice.

I was so fascinated by all these strange new sights that I strode forward without thought of hunger until Evans asked if it was any use carrying our lunch further; we all decided that it wasn’t, and so sat down on a small hillock of sand with a merry little stream gurgling over the pebbles at our feet … We commanded an extensive view both up and down the valley, and yet, except about the rugged mountain summits, there was not a vestige of ice or snow to be seen; and as we ran the comparatively warm sand through our fingers and quenched our thirst at the stream, it seemed almost impossible that we could be within a hundred miles of the terrible conditions we had experienced on the summit …

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From our elevated position we could now get an excellent view of this extraordinary valley, and a wilder or in some respects more beautiful scene it would have been difficult to imagine. Below lay the sandy stretches and confused boulder heaps of the valley floor, with here and there the gleaming white surface of a frozen lake and elsewhere the silver threads of the running water; far above us towered the weather-worn, snow-splashed mountain peaks, between which in places fell in graceful curves the folds of some hanging glacier…

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I cannot but think that this valley is a very wonderful place. We have seen to-day all the indications of colossal ice action and considerable water action, and yet neither of these agents is now at work. It is worthy of record, too, that we have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a lichen; all that we did find, far inland amongst the moraine heaps, was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing. It is certainly a valley of the dead; even the great glacier which once pushed through it has withered away.

[pp625/6/7 “The Voyage of the ‘Discovery’.”]

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In Polar Travel, choice of clothing can mean life or death

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Temperature minus 14.3 deg C; wind speed 20.7 knots;

perceived temperature minus 26.3 deg C

With temperatures like this, it is vital to be prepared. In fact, it is life threatening if you aren’t. My first impulse, when planning my journey during the heat of mid-summer Brisbane, was to dig out all my warm clothing and just add what was needed. I went through the snow gear of my son and daughter-in-law, Glenn and Emma, but found that skiing in the alps requires different clothing from walking on ice.

I walked into the Paddy Pallin store in Brisbane and a young man asked if he could help. I said I was preparing for a trip to Antarctica, (although I still couldn’t believe it was actually happening). He was heading to the Himalayas, which meant he knew exactly what I would need. It was critical to try the whole kit on before settling on sizes. The more layers, the larger the next garment needs to be. Just imagine climbing into all I was taking in a small dressing room in 30-degree heat!

By the time I left the store, my wallet was considerably lighter, but I trusted his judgement. Wisely, as it turned out. All those warmies I already owned and had planned to take? Only the beanie and the Polartec® jacket proved worthwhile. Forget about bulky warm coats. The secret to success is layering. Many layers. And, so important, never have cotton next to your skin. If you sweat, the moisture turns to ice. Imagine finding a slab of ice inside your shirt. It did happen.

So, this is what I took with me:

Antarctic gear

Upper body

  • First and second layers – two thermal tops, one close fitting with extended cuffs that include thumb holes. (They ensure there is no gap between gloves and bottom of sleeve), the second one looser. They wick moisture away from the body.
  • Third layer – polyester skivvy (absolutely not cotton).
  • Fourth layer – polar fleece sleeveless vest.
  • Fifth layer – polar fleece jacket.
  • Sixth layer – goose-down jacket (every girl should own one of these)⎯although I found it very delicate, and the outer material tore very easily.
  • Seventh layer – waterproof and windproof shell that goes over everything. I chose Hydronaught instead of any other alternative as I liked the feel of it and the fact that it is 100% waterproof, totally windproof, it actually breathes and wicks moisture to the outside, and is extremely durable. It did not fail me. Even when I was being slapped by sea spray that snap froze as it left the wave. My coat turned white, but I remained completely dry and warm. It also withstood very rough treatment sitting on sharp rocks surrounded by inquisitive penguins. If it is possible to love a piece of clothing, then I am guilty.

Legs

  • Undergarments – two sets of thermal leggings. Again, one close fitting, one a bit looser. I made sure they were very stretchy and would not inhibit movement.
  • Third layer – heavy corduroy pants, obviously large enough to fit over two sets of thermals, but also loose enough around the knees to allow for flexibility.
  • Fourth layer – waterproof pants. It is worth spending the extra to buy ones that are lined, have a zipper that reaches from ankle to knee, with a clip to fasten, and an elastic cord to tighten around the ankle. Particularly when wading through elephant seal wallows. The more expensive ones also come with zippered pocket slits to enable you to reach your trouser pockets if needed.

Head – You can’t compromise here.

  • Balaclava – a good-fitting Polartec® balaclava (I chose Windstopper) with a gauze section beneath the nostrils to allow you to breathe. When not used as a head cover, you can pull it back from your head and use as a neck warmer.
  • Beanie – a Polartec® beanie over the balaclava.
  • Sunglasses – for all those hours watching ice and shining water.

Feet

  • It depends on what footwear is provided. Most voyages supply sturdy, industrial-strength rubber boots that reach the knee and have thick soles. They look warm, but they need help.
  • First layer – fine merino sock liners.
  • Second layer – thin woollen sock

rubber bootsGloves

I took three different gloves with me,as well as liners, and they each had their use.

  • Liners – most importantly, a pair of merino glove liners to either wear when it’s not that cold, or to add warmth beneath your real gloves. They are also handy for operating the camera if it is not too cold.
  • Woollen gloves if there is no water or ice. Also handy around the ship
  • Wool-lined rubber gloves for on the Zodiac. These are actually Australian Antarctic Division issue, and were given to me by an Antarctic scientist friend.
  • Padded ski gloves, borrowed from my daughter-in-law, Emma. I found these the warmest when the day was the coldest and there were no moisture issues. Some of my fellow expeditioners had mittens that flapped open to reveal fingerless gloves for operating cameras. Next time, I would probably choose these.

In choosing the waterproof layers, there were certain features that made life much easier. Thinking and moving take on different dimensions when you are being hit by a blizzard. My coat had a large pocket on the outside of the left-hand side with an easy-to-operate zip with long toggle. Being right-handed, this was a plus. It was capacious enough to contain my digital camera and camcorder, although it needed to be zipped up all the time, as I found to my cost. On two occasions I dropped both cameras, being in a rush to film, then bending over without zipping the pocket closed.

The coat zipped right up to my nose, which was good at keeping out the wind and snow, but made it more difficult to breathe and fogged my glasses. I had to pull it down to take a breath, then zip it up to get warm again. The coat also had a velcro tab at the back of the neck, enabling easy adjustment of the front peak over my forehead. It had two deep pockets below the waist, but if I carried anything in these, it inhibited leg movement. I had chosen a long coat down to my knees which was terrific when sitting on penguin poo-covered rocks, but I had to leave the zip open at the bottom, again, for ease of leg movement.

I remained completely warm and dry with the above combination, although my hands were a little chilled at times. The only time I experienced moisture inside was when I wore a cotton skivvy. All other clothing wicked the moisture out.

And on top of everything went the life jacket. I could barely move once it was strapped on. However, we were not allowed to go off the ship without it, and a complete waterproof shell from head to toe. Pride took second place.

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Read all about my 2013 Antarctic expedition in my ebook:

Why Antarctica? a Ross Sea odyssey

on Kindle (Amazon)

on iBooks

Join me on Oceanwide Expedition’s next trip to the Ross Sea in Jan/Feb 2017

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Inside Scott’s hut

An excerpt from my iBook, “Why Antarctica? a Ross Sea odyssey”

Chapter 7 – Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans, Ross Sea

February 4, Monday (Day 19)

“We passed Franklin Island at 04:00, but I looked out my porthole and decided it looked like all the other islands we had seen, so stayed in bed ⎯ until 05:45 when Greg announced that there was a large pod of orcas ahead of the boat so, up to the bridge. They were circling, obviously feeding. We stayed well away so as not to disturb them. We sailed past beautiful Beaufort Island with an enormous berg half circling it. We often see greenish patches on the surface which are krill.”


Sailing down the coast to Cape Evans, there is no difficulty picking out Scott’s Terra Nova (1910-13) hut. After 100 years, it still stands proud, right on the waterline. The temperature has dropped to -12oC with 35-knot winds, giving an effective temperature of -25oC.

It is snowing and the seas are rough. I dress in all my layers: 2 thermal tops and bottoms; a skivvy; polar-fleece jacket; goose-down jacket; corduroy pants; 3 pairs of socks; Hydronought overcoat; rainpants; balaclava and beanie; 2 pairs of gloves; rubber boots. The worst part is having to wear a life jacket on top of everything. It feels very restrictive. No glasses though, as they only fog immediately I pull my balaclava over my nose. Amazingly, my eyes adapt okay and I can see well enough, but if I ever return, I must bring snow goggles.

As with each trip ashore, we line up on deck to plunge our boots in a tub of disinfectant and brush them on a platform made of coarse bristles. We repeat this procedure each time we leave or return to the ship.

I stand on the platform at the bottom of the gangplank poised, ready to jump when our guide says to, with the Zodiac pitching in a two-metre swell. The deck, gangplank, hull of Ortelius, Zodiac and drivers are all white with ice, as are my daypack and outer layers as soon as the spray hits. I grab the arm of our guide in a sailor’s grip (wrist to wrist) and jump when he says “jump”, trusting that the side of the Zodiac will line up with the step as I leap into the gap. I think: gees, anyone who knows me wouldn’t believe this!

I slip on the icy deck of the Zodiac and have a job finding my feet again to sit on the rubber side, but we all help each other. It is a very rough ride and I grip the rope behind me as firmly as I can, all the while being slapped in the face by spray that snap freezes the instant it leaves the wave’s surface.

Cape Evans is made up of decomposed basalt with patches of snow and ice, which make for easy walking. I become a little panicky when I can’t breathe, or see where I am stepping (no glasses plus aforementioned clothing obscuring vision). I pull the balaclava down to take a breath and my nose instantly freezes.

I make my way straight to the hut while others walk to the memorial cross on the hill. I scrub my soles clean (again) and remove my salty coat in the little entrance, to enter another world.

I am surprised at the size of the hut. A central wall of crates, most bearing the stamp “Coleman’s Flour – B.A.E. Shore Party”, stacked almost to the ceiling, divides the interior. The workers’ quarters are at the front—kitchen on right-hand side, bare timber table in the centre, and stretchers along the left-hand side. The officers’ quarters are towards the rear, dominated by the large table around which Scott and his men gathered for mid-winter and special events.

A framed time-marked mirror hangs on the wall. It seems so out of place in a hut of explorers. Cups hang on hooks. Boxes, cans, bottles of stores fill every spare nook. At least the workers had the stove in their part of the hut—a fluted cast iron affair with a huge flue running the whole length of the roof to give as much warmth as possible before belching black blubber smoke into the icy outside.

At the rear of the hut, separated from the rest, are Scott’s, Evans’ and Wilson’s private quarters. A penguin, stuffed a century ago by Wilson, lies on a table in his room. I am amazed at how fresh it still looks.

Scott’s bed, shelves and desk are exactly the same as I have seen in photos. His hot water bottle and socks hang on a nail on the wall next to his bed. He has just stepped out…

Then … and now …

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What I would give to be here on my own. What I would give to be able to stay awhile. The place and surrounds is filled with an awe-filled beauty.

The whole hut is dark, despite the windows. It must have been quite bleak, even in summer. Two sledges stored in the rafters bear the marks of wear on the runners.

I shed a tear as I sign the visitors’ book. Not too many other people in the world have done this.

Before exiting the hut, I turn into the leanto that was built to house Scott’s horses. A large stack of seal blubber at the entrance, a metre high and two metres long, still smells after 100 years. How it must have permeated the rooms as it burnt on the stove. That, and the smell of 25 unwashed men. A galvanised iron washtub hangs near a box of penguin eggs.

All is quiet except for the howling katabatic wind swooping down from Mount Erebus and the crunch of my boots on the ubiquitous black basalt. I walk along the seven stalls seeing remnants of activity: a hand-made wheelbarrow made from crates; a pot-belly stove in the corner that wouldn’t have afforded much warmth during the winters; the skeleton of a husky, still wearing its collar, chained to the end wall.

Around the back of the hut are the toilets. Apparently the class distinction even extended here, with officers’ bums needing different seats from the workers’. Behind each one is a trap door for emptying them. I am betting the officers and gentlemen didn’t empty their own.

I leave the hut and look up towards the cross on the hill. There is no-one left up there, and the snow is blowing horizontally, straight in my face. I look out to sea and can hardly make out Ortelius in the distance through the blizzard. Not quite a whiteout, but it gives me an idea of what it must be like. I decide not to make the climb. To me, the men’s spirit remains in the hut and, in all honesty, I am pretty well all out of emotion. Besides, as it turns out, my feelings for this beautifully constructed building are stronger than the feelings for the men who had lived in her. My passion for pioneer huts is almost as strong as my passion for Antarctica.

As I wait for the Zodiac to take us back to Ortelius, I notice that everyone is more sombre than usual. To enter this hut is akin to bumping into Scott and his men themselves.

But the past is past. Scott and his crew are here, the continent has been here for so long and, human beings willing, will continue long after I am gone. Many have come here as modern explorers and expeditioners. It is a wondrous place, an awe-ful place, and I am among the fortunate who have experienced it.

We huddle in the lee of a shed, and I am amazed at how much warmer it feels out of the wind. I am warm as toast the whole time, except for a few moments when I remove an outer glove to work the camera. Bad move. It takes a long time to warm my hand again.

The return trip is just as exhilarating as the outward trip. The Zodiac pitches, threatening to wrench the rope out of our guide’s hand as he pulls up close to the gangplank. I scramble onto the icy step. My “thank you” to the hands that help me sounds much lighter than I feel.

Back on board, Johnny greets us each with a small nip of Johnny Walker. What the heck! Gee, it is nice! After all, it is a momentous occasion visiting Scott’s hut.

If you would like to read more of my Ross Sea Antarctic adventures, check out “Why Antarctica? a Ross Sea odyssey” on iBooks. It contains lots of tales, over 300 beautiful images and 14 video clips and interactive maps.

Why Antarctica? a Ross Sea odyssey

COVER PHOTO

 

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Why Antarctica? a Ross Sea odyssey

For those of you who are remotely interested in Antarctica, or my adventures there, here is my latest book: Why Antarctica? a Ross Sea odyssey. It is available from iBooks, which means you need to have an iPad or Mac (or know someone who does).

Price is $14.99 AUD. Within its 89 pages are tales, over 300 beautiful photos,14 video clips and interactive maps.

I hope you enjoy it. It will take around 10 minutes to download, so put the kettle on and watch the Youtube video of the book trailer while you wait.

And, excitingly, Oceanwide Expeditions are promoting this book. So, if you know anyone who wants to take part in the next Ross Sea expedition in early 2017, please use this link to enquire:

Oceanwide Expeditions Ross Sea 2017

I confess I will benefit if you do.

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In Defence of AAE 2013

For the past week, I have followed the unfolding saga as those onboard Akademik Shokalskiy watch the weather, the ice, the approaching icebreakers. Ten months ago we were battling the ice approaching the Ross Sea in MV Ortelius. Greg Mortimer was our leader then, and he is co-leader of the team on the edge of Commonwealth Bay now. I have only briefly met team leader Chris Turney, but I know of his dedication to science and all things Antarctic. Any expedition guided by these two men is in good and safe hands. Both are careful, considerate leaders. Why, then, are there those who criticise and belittle this expedition?

The world is divided into those who ‘get’ Antarctica, and those who don’t. Those who do are people who make the short trip to the wonderland of the Antarctic Peninsular, and ones who take the continent more seriously and venture into East Antarctica. The REAL Antarctica. Of those who don’t ‘get it’, most still appreciate what a special place this is, and understand the need to monitor its changes which affect the whole planet. A very few laugh at serious scientists who take risks to gather this information.

I have followed just about every tweet and post and blog (including some on WordPress) and am disgusted at the minority who call Chris and his gang all sorts of names – like idiot. They accuse him of running away from the ship, of having too much fun (!). These critics obviously do not understand that science is not tied to the ship. In Mawson’s case, the ship left them. For a year. In Chris’s case, his science is complete, and he needs to return to analyse the data and write papers. The Shokalskiy will be left in the very capable hands of its Russian crew who know very well how to look after themselves and their ship. The scientists are merely passengers.

And as for having fun – surely it is the role of the expedition leader to keep morale high? When we were battling the ice last February, there were a few onboard who grumbled. Greg jumped on this very quickly, organising activities to keep everyone content: Zodiac rides among the ice; helicopter flights over the Transantarctic Mountains; trivia quizzes.

This afternoon, according to Chris, a helicopter has come from the Xue Long and they will be flying out within the hour. The plan is to lift all non-crew onto the Xue Long, then transfer to Aurora Australis who will resume resupplying Casey Station. I have to admit, I am envious. I would give anything to be with them; to experience everything that powerful place has thrown at them, and share the camaraderie I know will be strong.

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Antarctica at Last!

Imagine sitting in a zodiac on a heaving, breathing sea of brash ice, in the middle of the Southern Ocean with 4,000 metres of water beneath. We are 500km from the Antarctic coast, 1,700km from the closest human presence in the Ross Sea. Yet again on this trip, a reminder that I have voluntarily placed myself so far from my comfort zone. From the safety of Ortelius, brash ice and large icebergs appear benign as they drift past. Their beauty dominates, along with the awe they inspire. Up close, it is their power that dominates. The ice through which we push screeches as it grips the rubber, then reluctantly moves aside to let us pass. Every few metres our guide, Elke, cuts the outboard to tilt it free of the surface and kick away lumps of ice that foul the propeller.

Ever so slowly, we creep away from Ortelius to seek out a crabeater seal one of our crew has seen on a distant flow. Personally, I would rather circle the blue, blue bergs nearer to us. For nearly an hour we weave through promising leads, often to reverse and try another path. We make the seal, cut the engine and roll with the swell. The seal opens an eye and stretches luxuriously. It is tempting to think she is observing us, but have learnt she is short-sighted out of water. The weather is kind. No wind, air temperature hovering around zero, high cloud that blocks the glare and favours the many shades of blue the ice holds. After an initial flurry of camera clicking, the shutters slow and we resume our seats on the rubber sides of the zodiac. We can no longer see out mother ship.

There is one more iceberg to visit before returning “home”. It is almost a small island of ice mountains constantly being scoured by frothy waves, deepending the central lagoon of brilliant blue. We pass beneath icicles metres long fringing one of the peaks, and the whole magnificent berg is rocked by a surge of water. I am caught between the hope that something spectacular will happen and the feeling of vulnerability being perching on the edge of a little rubber boat. “It will break up soon,” says Elke. She has read my thoughts.

We are all cold. Elke produces a much-needed block of chocolate, then turns back for Ortelius. This is not a direct route. The sea ice has thickened markedly in the past two hours, and no one talks as she, oh so skilfully, weaves the zodiac through large chunks and mushy ice. We meet Rolf on the way back. The ship has been trying to contact us since we disappeared from sight over an hour ago. Radio on the wrong channel! Back safe, hot chocolate and a tale to tell as we set sail to our next adventure.

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